Workers taking down the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Mongolia AFP/Getty Images

The Power of Monuments

Why should public spaces in the US be purged of images of Confederate leaders, while statues of Admiral Nelson and Cecil Rhodes still stand in Britain? The way we tell stories of our past, and keep memories alive in cultural artifacts, is a large part of how we view ourselves collectively.

NEW YORK – The ghastly spectacle last month of neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and barking slogans about the supremacy of the white race, was sparked by the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army, which fought to retain slavery in the secessionist South during the American Civil War. The statue of General Lee on his horse has been there since 1924, a time when the lynching of black citizens was not a rarity.

Inspired by the events taking place in Charlottesville, advocates have emerged in Britain seeking to pull Admiral Nelson off his famous column on Trafalgar Square in London, because the British naval hero supported the slave trade. And two years ago, protesters at the University of Oxford demanded the removal of a sculpture of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, where the old imperialist had once been a student, because his views on race and empire are now considered to be obnoxious.

There always was something magical about this kind of iconoclasm, which rests on the belief that smashing an image will somehow solve the problems associated with it. When English Protestants challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, mobs laid waste to stone-carved saints and other holy representations with pick-hammers and axes. Eighteenth-century revolutionaries did the same to churches in France. The most radical example occurred in China only a little more than 50 years ago, when Red Guards destroyed Buddhist temples and burned Confucian books – or indeed anything old and traditional – to herald the Cultural Revolution.

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